In What Ways Does Science Fiction Influence Spirituality?

Sermon by Doug Jurrius

 

[Music:  Opening scene from 2001 space Odyssey ]

How many of you remember the movie, 2001 A space Odyssey?  How many remember where you first saw the movie when it came out in the spring of 1968?  For me, I vividly remember my father taking my brother & I, age 7 & 8, to a theater in Pittsburgh to see it.  My parents had recently separated, due in no small part to the death of my 4 year old sister.  It was a confusing time, and the movie doubly so.  But it was momentous and majestic, and riveting.  I still remember whispering questions to my father; what was that black object, why did the astronaut turn into a baby and so on?  Little more than a year later, on July 20, 1969 Neil Armstrong would stand on the moon & state:  “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind”.  That night I was sitting on my grandfather’s lap watching it all on a small B&W TV.  I remember looking up at him and seeing tears in his eyes as he said “now I have lived to see everything”.  And I suppose for a man born in the midst of the Boer war in South Africa, escaping with his mother to Russia only to witness the Bolshevik revolution, and to have seen the advent of electricity, telegraph, automobiles, telephones, radio, aircraft, & TV, it probably was quite true.

When my mom moved us back to her family’s home outside of Houston Texas, where show & tell once included someone’s father bringing a moon rock, is it any wonder I am a Science Fiction fanatic?  But while SF may have begun as my refuge, it has evolved to provide me a spiritual home.  It probably is what led me here to UU Fellowship of Easton.

You may know this-  the Unitarian Universalist church has deep and rich ties to the Science Fiction genre.  Edward Everett Hale was a well known Unitarian preacher and abolitionist in the 19th Century, and was the author of a number of important literary works. He wrote some of the earliest utopian and alternative history fiction, including the classic The Man without a Country and Other Tales.  Olaf Stapledon, literary heir to H. G. Wells and author of the classic philosophical future history Last and First Men, had a Unitarian mother. Canadian s.f. writer Robert J. Sawyer was raised in a Unitarian home. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Ray Bradbury and Frederik Pohl have been associated with Unitarianism as adults, and Sydney J. van Scyoc was an active church member. Lyda Morehouse is a contemporary science fiction writer who was formerly a Unitarian-Universalist. Her novel Archangel Protocol contains several references to UUs.   I’m not saying that you MUST love science fiction to be a good UU’r, but you’ll be in good company if you do.

So why do I believe Science Fiction is the MOST important fiction genre, and hugely important to our spiritual life?  It might be a bit of sleight of hand, for Science Fiction contains ALL other fiction genres.  Want a good mystery?  Read Isaac Asimov’s Robot series.  Want a good historical novel?  Look no further than the Outlander series of books (& TV series) by Diana Gabaldon.  The horror genre is almost custom made for science fiction, with Aliens & the war of the Worlds just the start of the list.  Wikipedia lists 7 major themes in SF, each having at least 20 or more subthemes.

Science fiction has been almost eerie sometimes in its foretelling of the future.  Jules Verne  is legendary, but there are many others.  One that jumps to mind after the events of this past week is Robert Heinlein’s “If this goes on….”, written in 1940.  In the story a demogogue is elected president in 2012, re-elected in 2016, and declared himself leader for life thereafter. HMMMMMM…..  The U.S. fractures into 4 parts:  the state of California where egalitarianism is legally binding, the South & Midwest becomes the home of the evangelical Christian theocracy/dictatorship, the NE struggles to maintain itself as the USA, and Texas, of course, goes off on its own.

Will Shetterly, in his treatise which is up on the UU website, Speculation and revelation- How science fiction and fantasy shaped my spiritual journey, wrote:  “All stories are implicitly spiritual, whether they’re about Philip Marlowe seeking a murderer, Elizabeth Bennet seeking love, or Dorothy seeking Oz. Every genre has its metaphor: Mysteries are about truth. Romances are about love. Fantasy and science fiction are about wonder and purpose. By putting people into impossible circumstances, they ask, “Who are we? Why are we here?”.  Wonder and purpose – sounds like it might be a useful genre, yes?

Will summarized his spiritual journey thru science fiction with: “the truth is that my need for revelation was answered in the literature of speculation, fantasy and science fiction, the genres that test unlikely propositions in stories.”

So you are asking yourself, really, ScyFy as a spiritual pathway?  And while I am new to UUing, I will answer emphatically YES!  Wikipedia defines Unitarian Universalism as “a liberal religion characterized by a “free and responsible search for truth and meaning“.  How better to search for real meaning that to constantly attempt to project many possible futures, so that we might consciously make choices?  In addition, many religions use parables to help provide the gestalt of some otherwise very slippery concepts.  Jesus, Buddha, the Quoran make use of parables.  Science Fiction is ultimately a collection of parables written not by one spiritual leader, but by all of mankind.  And the stories constantly evolve as our understanding of science and ourselves grows.

For me, good Science Fiction is about taking a “what if” and projecting it to its logical conclusion.  It is about both coming to grips with the inevitable parts of the future, and also having signposts stating “beware, there be dragons here”.  And by that I mean some science fiction stories are very dystopian, pointing to places our technology could take us that would demean the human spirit or end humanity all together.  Some of the biggest changes happening to us right now, I have already read & thought about for a decade or more.  Case in point, In 1985 Jerry Pournelle wrote a novel where the biggest stars of the day, were reality TV pornstars, that millions watched as they went thru their day centered on sex.  Kim Kardashian is pretty boring by comparison.

So good science fiction can help us prepare for the future.  GREAT science fiction helps us on our spiritual journey searching for truth & meaning.  Let me give you just a few examples.

A big area of spiritual wonder is to come to grips how best to interact with the “other”.  Other political parties, other countries, other races. One great “other” is the other gender.  I have spent a great deal of time pondering the truth and meaning of the other half of humanity called female.  During my teenage years, I could ponder little else.  Without doubt, one of the greatest novels in this vein is Ursula Leguin’s novel “the left hand of darkness”.  Ursula posits a world where gender does not normally exist.  As in many science fiction novels, to give you a plausible way to get you there, this one is set at a time in the future where man has found a means to transit the almost unfathomable distances of space, and the great human diaspora has begun.  In a universe so large, man is free to not only travel, but to modify herself in fundamental ways.  Some might decide to populate a planet of only one race, or religion, or change our DNA.  In this case, the settlers of the world of Gethan rejiggered humans so that adults spend 3 weeks of every month sexually indeterminate.  On the 4th week, they enter a state called Kemmer, and become sexualized.  Every individual can become either male or female during that period.  And their sexual form can change each and every kemmer period.  You experience sex from both sides.  You can be the father of one child, and the mother of another.  So what is a human, when there are no gender signposts?  I read the Left hand of darkness while in college in the 70’s, when gender identity was pretty well defined and your role fixed.  The book forced me to consider who I was once my gender was stripped away, where hormones do not rule my behavior.  What is the nature of love, without gender?  What does it mean to be human?  Coming to grips with that is pretty darn interesting.

In “stranger in a strange land”- one of the greats of science fiction Robert Heinlein, explores the concept of that each of us, individually & collectively ARE god.  Science and mathematics have shown how patterns are often repeated from the microscopic to the cosmic.  So perhaps it is not inconceivable that just as the individual cells that compose your body, have no idea how they fit into the greater creation and consciousness that is you, perhaps the pattern repeats and you are an individual component of some greater creation we oft refer to as god.  What if you could tap into this greater consciousness to really know & understand another?  In the novel, Heinlein invented the term “to grok” for this.  It became so popular that it is found in many dictionaries today.  Now consider, if I am some part of god, can I in some way influence the will of god?  Can I create the reality of my dreams?  There are times I desperately wish for the answer to be yes, that if only I could convince enough people to find happiness thru a spirit of common good, that I could make it the reality.

I will give you just one more example of how Science Fiction has allowed its readers a glimpse into the UU search for truth & meaning.  Over the course of his career, Isaac Asimov wrote some 38 short stories, and 5 novels in his “I robot” series.  Essentially it covers man’s evolving attempt to build first a mechanical device to do drudge work, but ultimately becomes human’s masterpiece;  to build another sentient being to share the journey thru the ages.  Asimov dealt with what would be a very real concern on the part of many people;  how to assure these ever more capable creations always work in the best interests of humankind.  So he wrote the famous 3 laws of robotics, which were imprinted in the positronic brains of every robot ever produced.  They are an interesting, and are hotly debated today as we edge closer to true AI.  Personally I find them a pretty good ethical starting point, akin to the 10 commandments.

The 3 laws of robotics-

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Later, in the novels when the AI’s become so powerful, they are placed in charge of planet earth’s economy, and in a very real way, much of mankind’s happiness, he added a 4th, or “zero” law

“A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.”

Interestingly in his stories, the AI’s come to believe that humankind’s ideal environment is one of small scattered agricultural communities, and begins to slowly & systematically destroy worldwide capitalism.

There are so many stories, and themes in science fiction, so many ideas large & small that keep bubbling thru my head from my 50 years of interacting with this genre, that like a small child at the beach, I so want run back and forth bringing you little bits and say “ lookit lookit lookit at this!”.  But I will spare you.

One area I challenge all of us collectively to consider & perhaps write our own science fiction novel to point the way for humanity is something Ursula Leguin spoke of recently.  She said we have outgrown capitalism, and need to find a new system.

“A capitalist economy, by definition, lives by growth; as Bookchin observes: “For capitalism to desist from its mindless expansion would be for it to commit social suicide.” We have, essentially, chosen cancer as the model of our social system.

Capitalism’s grow-or-die imperative stands radically at odds with ecology’s imperative of interdependence and limit. The two imperatives can no longer coexist with each other; nor can any society founded on the myth that they can be reconciled hope to survive. Either we will establish an ecological society or society will go under for everyone, irrespective of his or her status.”

Or as my wife succinctly put it  “you can’t eat money”. 

For me Science Fiction has been the perfect means to understand man’s relentless, genetic  really, curiousity, combined with a firm conviction that that love is the only lasting, worthy, emotion.  It is the ying & yang of our existence.  And that love and curiosity are the essential emotions that make us, us.  Once you’ve read hundreds of novels like The left hand of darkness, or Robert Heinlein’s “Time enough for love”, where man becomes woman, woman becomes android, computer becomes human, human becomes alien, alien saves humanity, humanity destroys then saves alien, man discovers time travel and makes changes in the past, humans are or become god, you start to get a glimpse of the divine, of what really matters to us as individuals, and collectively as a species.

I will leave you with a quote from near the end of the novel Cloud Atlas.  There are some references to things in the book, but I think you will get the spirit of it.  It is very self deterministic in nature, where ultimately it is not some external god that determines our fate, but ourselves.

If we believe that humanity may transcend tooth and claw, if we believe diverse races & creeds can share this world as peaceably as the orphans share their candlenut tree, if we believe leaders must be just, violence muzzled, power accountable & the riches of the Earth & its Oceans shared equitably, such a world will come to pass.

 

Finish theme song to 2001.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>